State v. Dion E. Robinson (A-40-15) (076267)Five officers’ swift and coordinated action eliminated the risk that any of the four occupants would gain immediate access to the weapon
Patterson, J., writing for a unanimous Court.
In this appeal as of right, the Court considers whether the protective sweep exception to the warrant requirement applies to a police officer’s search of a vehicle’s passenger compartment in the wake of a traffic stop.
After observing a driving pattern he considered unsafe in an area associated with drug activity, Officer Ceci conducted a motor vehicle stop. The driver was defendant Dion Robinson, the front seat passenger was Catilya Carson, the left-rear-seat passenger was Marcus Sanders, and the right-rear-seat passenger was Terron Henderson.
Officer Ceci asked defendant for his license, registration, and insurance. Defendant misidentified himself, stated that his license was suspended, and provided the registration and insurance. Henderson misidentified himself as defendant. Carson and Sanders accurately identified themselves and presented identification cards but no driver’s licenses. Defendant said that the car was owned by his friend, but that he did not know the friend’s name.
Officer Ceci was advised by the dispatcher that defendant and Henderson each had an outstanding warrant and that defendant was known to carry weapons. Officer Ceci confirmed that information and found that Henderson also had a “caution for weapons.” He called for backup; a sergeant and three officers joined him at the scene.
The officers directed defendant and Henderson out of the car, handcuffed them, and arrested them. A search incident to arrest revealed no weapons on either. Some of the officers were assigned to watch defendant and Henderson, who stood handcuffed on the side of the highway and were not permitted to return to the vehicle.
Next, the officers detained, but did not arrest, Carson and Sanders, on whom the officers found no weapons. Carson and Sanders were then directed to stand on the side of the road, monitored by officers. Officer Ceci did not observe Carson or Sanders make any motion that suggested that either was reaching for a weapon, attempting to hide any object, or resisting the directions of the officers. Carson and Sanders were not allowed access to the vehicle. They were not licensed drivers and would not have been permitted to drive the vehicle home.
Officer Ceci then conducted a sweep of the interior of the vehicle to check for weapons. He searched the front-seat passenger area, where Carson had left her purse. When he touched the bottom of the purse, Officer Ceci felt the outline of a handgun, which he retrieved and brought to his patrol vehicle. He then asked the other officers to place Carson and Sanders in custody, summoned a tow truck, and applied for a search warrant.
Defendant was charged with two weapons offenses, hindering apprehension, and four drug offenses, which were the subject of the outstanding warrant. Defendant moved to suppress the handgun found by Officer Ceci during his search of the car. The trial court denied the motion, finding that the traffic stop was properly based on the officer’s articulable and reasonable suspicion that defendant had committed traffic offenses and that the search constituted a reasonable and lawful protective sweep. Pursuant to a plea agreement, defendant pled guilty to second-degree unlawful possession of a handgun and third-degree possession of a CDS.
Defendant appealed the trial court’s denial of his motion to suppress. The majority of the Appellate Division panel concluded that Officer Ceci’s search of the motor vehicle was not a lawful protective sweep and reversed the trial court’s determination. 441 N.J. Super. 33, 46-47 (App. Div. 2015). The panel rejected the State’s assertion that the community-caretaking exception governs this case and noted that the “plain-feel” doctrine was irrelevant. One member of the panel dissented, finding that the search was justified as both a valid protective sweep and an exercise of police community-caretaking functions. The State appealed as of right. R. 2:2-1(a)(2).
HELD: Although the circumstances gave rise to a reasonable suspicion that there was a weapon in the vehicle, the five officers’ swift and coordinated action eliminated the risk that any of the four occupants would gain immediate access to the weapon. Accordingly, the protective sweep exception to the warrant requirement does not govern this case. The community-caretaking exception to the warrant requirement is irrelevant. However, the inevitable discovery exception to the exclusionary rule may be pertinent to this case.
1. The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I, Paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution guarantee “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures,” and set forth the requirements for warrants. Warrantless searches are permissible only if justified by one of the few specifically established and well-delineated exceptions to the warrant requirement. It is the State’s burden to prove that a warrantless search falls within one or more of those exceptions.
2. The protective sweep exception to the warrant requirement derives from Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968). In Terry, the Supreme Court held that a police officer may initiate an investigatory stop in the presence of “specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant that intrusion.” Id. at 21. Terry stops are narrowly drawn to permit a reasonable search for weapons.
3. The United States Supreme Court applied the protective sweep exception to an automobile setting in Michigan v. Long, 463 U.S. 1032, 1049 (1983). The Court adopted that standard in State v. Lund, 119 N.J. 35, 48 (1990), but rejected the State’s claim that the search reviewed in that case was a valid protective sweep. In State v. Gamble, the Court upheld an automobile search as a lawful protective sweep. 218 N.J.412, 431-33 (2014).
4. Long and the Court’s opinions in Lund and Gamble define the standard for a valid protective sweep of an automobile following a traffic stop: the State must present specific and articulable facts that, considered with the rational inferences from those facts, warrant a belief that an individual in the vehicle is dangerous and that he or she may gain immediate control of weapons. The protective sweep exception in the automobile setting does not turn solely on the potential presence of a weapon in a vehicle. Instead, it addresses the imminent danger to police when a driver or passenger will be permitted access to a vehicle that may contain a weapon or may be in a position to evade or overpower the officers at the scene. That standard governs this appeal. (p. 22)
5. In light of Officer Ceci’s observations of defendant’s driving, there were specific and articulable facts giving rise to reasonable suspicion that defendant had committed motor vehicle violations and that the traffic stop was therefore lawful. However, Officer Ceci’s search of the car was not a valid protective sweep. There is no doubt that Officer Ceci’s concerns that defendant and Henderson could be armed were justified, but Officer Ceci addressed the potential danger with prompt and effective action. None of the four occupants was given an opportunity to return to the car or was in a position to gain access to any weapon. The record did not reveal specific and articulable facts that, at the time of Officer Ceci’s search of the vehicle, would reasonably warrant the conclusion that any of the vehicle’s four occupants was potentially capable of gaining immediate control of weapons. The search of the car was not within the protective sweep exception to the warrant requirement.
6. This case does not fit within the narrow parameters of the community-caretaking doctrine as applied to the search of a motor vehicle. There was no potential threat to any person’s safety warranting application of the doctrine at the time that the search took place. The Court does not reach the “plain-feel” exception.
7. In light of the officers’ continued control over the vehicle, their reasonable concern that one or more occupants could have been armed, and the uncertain status of the vehicle’s owner, it may have been inevitable that the handgun would have been discovered. Consequently, the inevitable discovery exception to the exclusionary rule is potentially relevant to this case. The Court explains that exception and provides guidance for evaluating its applicability on remand, but offers no view on the resolution of any issues raised on remand.
The judgment of the Appellate Division is MODIFIED and AFFIRMED, and the matter is REMANDED to the trial court for proceedings consistent with this opinion.
CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, ALBIN, FERNANDEZ-VINA, SOLOMON, and TIMPONE join in JUSTICE PATTERSON’s opinion.